Nitin Patel's Rebellion in Gujarat is a Warning Signal to the Modi-Shah Leadership

Nitin Patel is back in the Gujarat cabinet with the finance portfolio. But the episode has shown that BJP chief ministers have no powers of their own.

Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani and deputy chief minister Nitin Patel along with governor Om Prakash Kohli. Credit: PTI

Ahmedabad: When the leadership stops listening to what is happening on the ground, it gets more and more alienated from the reality. It happened with the Bharatiya Janata Party the first time in 2004 when everything seemed to be shining on the surface but was not so under it. Under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, things were supposed to have changed – but apparently not. Something similar has now happened in the most unexpected place – Gujarat – with the most unexpected person, Modi. All opinion and exit polls said the BJP was winning in 2004 and were proved wrong. In 2017, once again, the pundits and the polls were equally confident, but this time, while everyone was proved correct, everyone went wrong too.

It is not known whether Modi and Shah have their ears to the ground to admit, at least to themselves, that the BJP’s victory in Gujarat was only an euphemism for defeat. If the Nitin Patel episode even before the new government begins its tenure is anything to go by, the Gujarat verdict has not taught much to the big two of the BJP.

When it all began in the middle of July 2015, the ruling BJP did not actually bother about the Hardik Patel phenonemon till it badly lost the district and taluka panchayat elections just eight months later. This was the first time that Modi had to ask his own protégé of years Anandiben Patel to step down as chief minister, hardly two years after he had moved away to New Delhi. Modi going back on a decision he had taken, and that too in Gujarat, was unthinkable. It was clear, even then, that despite the perception of his invincibility and Shah’s image of being a Chanakya, they did not have their ears to the ground.

Looking at his seniority in the government and his unflinching loyalty to the party, Nitin Patel would have been a natural choice as chief minister after Anandiben stepped down. And till virtually the last
moment, it seemed that Nitin Patel was going to be named – he had already started accepting congratulatory greetings and was giving interviews to local Gujarati TV channels about his priorities as the new chief minister. Just then, a dark horse emerged – Vijay Rupani. A former mayor of Rajkot
city for a year, few knew why he was the Gujarat BJP president. Fewer knew why he was named as the chief minister.

As Shah wanted and Modi did not – could not – disagree, Rupani, then also a minister in the Anandiben government, smoothly became the chief minister and Nitin Patel followed quietly as his deputy chief minister. No feathers were ruffled, nobody objected. There was no one who could even think of questioning this decision. Who would? Afterall, hadn’t Gujarat seen times when everything that Modi touched turned into gold?

Gujarat deputy chief minister Nitin Patel performs worship while taking his charge at his office in Gandhinagar. Credit: PTI

In any case, in the Modi-Shah scheme of things, there is little that even a chief minister does on his own. It was Amit Shah who flew down to Gujarat with a 10% economic reservation formula for the
agitating Patidars and this announcement was made by the state BJP president Vijay Rupani, then only a minister in the Anandiben government, from the party headquarters with the chief minister just
standing by as a mute spectator. The implementing agency was to be the state government and it should have been her decision and announcement, not of the party, but this is not how it turned out.

Similarly, it was not Rupani, but Shah, who called the shots in deciding the portfolios this time round. Rupani took the initial decision in taking away key portfolios from Nitin Patel and the latter went into a sulk. Just two days later, the central leadership stepped in to sort things out. It was the BJP chief with whom Nitin Patel was dealing constantly about the work he would do under the chief minister. And the evidence was provided by none other than Rupani when he told reporters, “The party leadership has made necessary changes in the portfolios and the matter is closed now.” A beaming Nitin Patel said at his residence, “I got a call from Amitbhai Shah at 7:30 am and he told me I would be entrusted with the portfolio matching my stature as the deputy chief minister and that the chief minister would hand over a letter about this to the governor in the afternoon. He told me to take charge in my office and I would be conveyed my new portfolios.”

“It was nothing about the departments, but about maintaining the dignity and respect of a cabinet number two. I spoke to the prime minister, I spoke to Amitbhai, I spoke to other leaders,” Patel went on. Patel had got his way. Rupani had to accept this reversal of his decision.

But the story actually begins now.

It is now publicly known that the chief minister of Gujarat – and of probably all other 18 states ruled by the BJP in India – is a rubber stamp who can’t decide even his own team of ministers. But what is new, and it is this that the BJP leadership missed predicting, is that no one could have imagined that Nitin Patel would speak up at his perceived demotion from three key ministries to the portfolios of road and building and health. Patel rebelled, remaining closeted in his home for two days and played the martyr in front of all those who came to meet him, while rumours swirled that he was quitting the party. His tantrums paid off – Shah reportedly called him and Rupani offered him the finance ministry, one of the portfolios he held before the elections. He was still not offered urban development retained by the chief minister himself or petrochemicals, his portfolios in the last government, but Rupani had to step back. In the process, Nitin Patel has become the first man of such seniority – and the most unexpected one too – to stand up to Modi and Shah. Nor is he the only unhappy one – sitting senior cabinet minister Babubhai Bokhiria from Porbander has been dropped in the new government and so has a minister of state, Rajendra Trivedi, from Vadodara. Both are known to have had a showdown with the chief minister Vijay Rupani, but both are keeping quiet and biding their time. This new found assertion among Nitin Patel, Babu Bokhiria and Rajendra Trivedi is the direct result of the BJP nosediving to 99 seats from 115 in 2012, which gives it only seven seats more than the number needed for a simple majority to form the government in the 182-member house.

The Nitin Patel episode only proves that Modi and Shah are yet to comprehend the dangers ahead. Or may be they just don’t wish to acknowledge it.

Darshan Desai is the Editor of Development News Network in Gujarat

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